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  • Echoes of History: Chinese Poetry at the Angel Island Immigration Station

    Poem from Angel Island
    Chinese poetry carved on the wall of the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay.
    Text from Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940

    These lines are from just one of the hundreds of poems carved on the barrack walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station in the early twentieth century by Chinese detainees awaiting decisions on their entry status. As the first literary body of work by Chinese North Americans, this collection of poetry not only carries the secret memories of early Chinese immigrants but also vividly portrays a pivotal period in the nation’s immigration history, when various harsh discriminatory laws limited the entry of Chinese and other Asian immigrants.

    I had read the poems and about their history, but it was not until I visited the site of the immigration station in 2016 and saw those carvings on the walls that I could deeply appreciate the detainees’ anger, frustration, and desperation. I can only imagine the hardships they endured on the isolated island upon arriving at this promising land of which they had long dreamed.

    The Shadow of Exclusion

    The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act legally banned the free immigration of all Chinese laborers and prohibited the naturalization of Chinese immigrants already in the United States. It was the first national legislation against immigration based on race and national origin. For decades after, additional laws were passed that barred other Asian immigrants, such as Japanese, Koreans, and Indians, and to limit immigration from southern and eastern European countries.

    Angel Island Immigration Station was built in 1910 in the San Francisco Bay mainly to process immigrants from China, Japan, and other countries on the Pacific Rim. Its primary mission was to better enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other anti-Asian laws enacted in subsequent years. Newcomers to the island were subjected to severe interrogation, which often led to detentions—from a few weeks to months, and sometimes even years—while waiting for the decisions of their fates.¹ The station remained in use until 1940, when a fire destroyed the administration building.

    Angel Island Immigration Station
    Angel Island Immigration Station, 1910. The dormitories were in the upper building.
    Photo courtesy of Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Group 85), National Archives
    Angel Island Immigration Station
    View of Immigration Station from San Francisco Bay, the boat Calypsa in foreground, c. 1925.
    Photo courtesy of California State Parks
    Angel Island Immigration Station
    Immigration interview on Angel Island, 1923.
    Photo courtesy of Records of the Public Health Service (Group 90), National Archives

    Besides a general physical examination applied for all immigrants regardless of age, gender, or race, Chinese detainees on Angel Island went through a special interrogation process. Immigration officials knew that a majority of Chinese immigrants claiming to be children of Chinese American citizens were just “paper sons” or “paper daughters” with false identities.² In the interrogation, applicants were asked questions concerning their family history, home village life, and their relationship to the witnesses. Any discrepancies between their answers and those provided by the witnesses resulted in deportation.

    Approximately one million immigrants were processed on Angel Island between 1910 and 1940. Of these, an estimated 100,000 Chinese people were detained.³

    Memories Carved on the Walls

    One of the ways that Chinese detainees protested their discriminatory treatment on Angel Island was to write and carve poetry on their barrack walls. The poems were almost lost to history until a former California state park ranger, Alexander Weiss, discovered them in 1970 when the park service was planning to tear down the building and reconstruct the site. After the news of Weiss’s discovery spread through the local Asian American community, activists, descendants of Angel Island detainees, and volunteer professionals and students launched a campaign to preserve the detention barracks and the poems carved within it.

    Poem carved on the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station
    Poem 135 from Island carved on the walls of a lavatory room on the first floor of the detention barracks at the Angel Island Immigration Station, author unknown.
    Photo by Ying Diao
    Angel Island Immigration Station
    The walls of a room on the second floor of the detention building are covered with Chinese poetry.
    Photo by Ying Diao

    Since the 1970s, various efforts have been made to preserve the poems. Today, more than 200 have been discovered and documented. At the forefront of these efforts was the work of Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, who published translations of the poetry and excerpts from interviews with former detainees in the book Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, first published in 19824 and republished in 2014.5

    The majority of poets were male villagers, often with little formal education, from China’s southern rural regions.6 Most of their poems follow the Chinese classic poetic forms with even numbers of lines; four, five, or seven characters per line; and every other two lines in rhyme.

    The content ranges from experiences traveling to the United States and their time on the island, to their impressions of Westerners and determination for national self-improvement. Besides personal expression, some poems refer to historical stories or make literary allusions. Unlike the traditional way of signing the poems, few people put their names at the end of their work, most likely to avoid punishment from the authorities.

    None of the collected poems were written by women. If women had written poetry, their works would have been destroyed in the women’s quarters, which were situated in the administration building and burned down in 1940.

    Poem 43 from Island sung in Toishanese by Yui Poon Ng of the Suey Sun Tong Association of Vancouver. Ng is improvising upon a type of narrative folksong, muk’yu (wooden fish), from Toisan County (Taishan in Mandarin) in the southern province of China from where most of the early Chinese immigrants came. Video recording produced by Joanne Poon, used by permission of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

    Angel Island Immigration Station
    Text of Poem 43 from Island as recited in the video.

    Remembering the Sounds of the Past

    First opened to the public in 1983, the renovated detention barracks has been turned into a museum as part of Angel Island State Park. In 1997, the site was designated as a National Historical Landmark.

    The historical discriminatory immigration laws seem to have become a thing of the past, but American inclusion and exclusion are still debated today—around such issues as, for example, childhood arrivals and executive orders proposing to ban refugees from certain countries. Fifty-two years after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed the discriminatory national origins quotas, immigration policy and reform continue to be a source of great national concern. Millions of undocumented immigrants live in the shadows; thousands of immigrants are detained each year by the Department of Homeland Security. The surviving poems carved on the walls of the Angel Island barracks record the historical voices impacted by past policies of exclusion and have a certain resonance today.

    Angel Island Immigration Station
    Restored detention barracks at Angel Island Immigration Station.
    Photo by Ying Diao

    The Chinese immigrants coming to the West Coast in the first half of the twentieth century told their immigration stories by writing Chinese classic poems. Across the five decades of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, several generations of subsequent immigrants have shared their migration experiences through a diverse range of expressive forms—from handicrafts to performing arts to foodways—demonstrating the enduring cultural vitality and creativity.

    We invite you to our 50th anniversary as we continue exploring these themes in the program On the Move: Migration Across Generations.

    Ying Diao holds a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Maryland, College Park. She was an intern with the 2016 Sounds of California Festival program. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Religious Diversity, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. She is most grateful to Grant Din, Yui Poon Ng, Joanne Poon, and Judy Yung for their help in collecting data for this blog.


    Architectural Resources Group. 2004. “Poetry and Inscriptions: Translation and Analysis.” Prepared by Charles Egan, Wan Liu, Newton Liu, and Xing Chu Wang for the California Department of Parks and Recreation and Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, San Francisco. Internal materials.

    Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. 2014. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

    Lee, Erika, and Judy Yung. 2010. Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Simanski, John F. 2014. “Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2013 Annual Report.”

    The Executive Office of the President. 2013. “Fixing Our Broken Immigration System: The Economic Benefits of Providing a Path to Earned Citizenship.”

    Yung, Bell and Eleanor S. Yung, eds. 2014. Uncle Ng Comes to America: Chinese Narrative Songs of Immigration and Love. Hong Kong: MCCM Creations.

    Yung, Judy. 2015. “Chinese Immigration and Poetry at Angel Island and Ellis Island.” Lecture given at the Asian American Research Institute, The City University of New York on March 6.


    1 On Angel Island, Chinese men were detained separately from women and other racial groups within overcrowded and unsanitary quarters. They were confined at all times except for mealtime in the administration building and for limited exercise in the fenced recreation yard.

    2 The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act did not bar the entry of Chinese merchants, diplomats, students, teachers, or descendants of the Chinese who had already become U.S. citizens. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed most of the city records, including birth certificates. Many Chinese immigrants seized the opportunity to falsely claim themselves as children of citizens. The name of “paper son” or “paper daughter” was given to those whose fathers were not U.S. citizens but buying papers asserting their citizenship.

    3 Other large groups of detainees include Japanese (85,000), South Asians (8,000), Russians and Jews (8,000), Koreans (1,000), and Filipinos (1,000).

    4 When the first edition was completed, no publishers were willing to release it because they did not foresee a market for Chinese American history or Chinese American literature. Three authors self-published their book through fundraising.

    5 The translation was aided by Mak Takahashi’s documentary photographs of the poems, Smiley Jann and Tet Yee’s transcription collections, individual rubbings, and translations provided by other community members.

    6 As classic poetry was taught by colloquia of the time, people with little formal education could learn to read, appreciate, and write Chinese poems as a common form of expression.

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